Antibiotics: nothing could go wrong, right?



In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered a contaminant mould in a Petri dish – the antibiotic found was termed penicillin. As the Second World War broke out, the need for effective antibiotics was dire, with more soldiers having died from dysentery and typhus than combat in the First World War. A new age of medicine had begun, with penicillin at the forefront. Others, like streptomycin, erythromycin and the formidable chloramphenicol, were soon to join – forming an arsenal of drugs capable of eradicating diseases which once plagued.

In following years the use of antibiotics became widespread. Great benefit was seen when risks were high – to prevent infection during surgery, for example. However, with no obvious ramifications, the drugs were (and still are) vastly over-prescribed with a ‘just-in-case’ approach applied to adversities as benign as a runny nose. Most of us are now aware that the heavy use of antibiotics is coming back to bite us in the form of antibiotic resistance. Public awareness in the UK soared as cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) did.

Something seemingly irrelevant that has also come to our attention in recent years is the fact that our bodies are teeming with somewhat friendly microbial life. This led to the mass marketing of probiotic drinks, though their efficacy remains a contentious issue. One particular stomach-dweller, present in over 50% of the world’s population, is Helicobacter pylori. Branded as an enemy of ours due to its association with gastritis and stomach cancer, doctors were quick to prescribe antibiotics to eradicate this misunderstood microbe.

It seems that our excessive use of antibiotics may be having health consequences due to the effects on organisms like H. pylori. Research over recent years has indicated that the drastic increase in cases of inflammatory disorders like hay fever and asthma could be a result of killing off endogenous microbes which play an important, yet unknown role. For example, H. pylori has now been associated with healthy levels of regulatory immune cells required for appropriate inflammatory responses – unlike those seen in asthmatics and alike.

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Andrew O'Leary

Biology graduate currently working in healthcare improvement.

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